When I greet people before or after church, I try to have a personal interaction with each individual — eye contact, a hand-shake or a hug, as seems appropriate in each case.  If one member of a couple is more outgoing, I reach out especially to the quiet one.  I try to say every person’s name, though I must admit my memory is not as dependable as it used to be.  I concentrate on what the person’s work is, or what they may be going through with health issues, or which sports they’re into, so that I can ask meaningful questions about things that interest them.

I try very hard to include children in these personal greetings.  Some little kids try to hide behind their parents, but I won’t let them.  I’ll peek around the parental screen until I make eye contact and acknowledge them with their own Hello.

This brings me to one of my pet peeves.  If I say Hello to little Billy, I’m trying to begin a conversation with him.  Many (maybe most) kids clam up and go into a little shy routine.  I kind of like that.  I think of it as a healthy attempt to define control of the social space around them, so they aren’t overwhelmed by the noise of the chattering big people above them.  I like to play Billy’s game and see it as a way to begin to form a relationship with him.

But Billy’s parents seem to have a need to fill the silence with, “Say Hello to Pastor George.”  I hear this at least once a week, and it always bothers me.  I’m not singling anyone out, because it seems to me that you all do it. I don’t know where this parental compulsion comes from.  I guess we’re trying to teach our kids how to interact in a polite way, and that’s a good thing.  But it’s more important for them to find their own comfort level in conversations with adults than for them to learn to obey the rules of social etiquette.

(I know that any reader who has taken a basic psychology course has me all figured out right now.  When I was a little tyke, my mother was very concerned about how I behaved around church people because it might reflect badly on the family.  Well, the truth is, I don’t remember my mother being like that.  But I do remember really resisting when adults told me what I should say and when.  I didn’t need legalistic parents for me to be rebellious. I developed that spirit without any help.  So I guess I’m projecting on Billy.)

Believe it or not, I have a spiritual analogy to share with you.  Even more than we want our kids to form a good relationship with Pastor George, we want them to become comfortable with their heavenly Father.  We bring them to church to meet God, and through the music, the prayers, the lessons in Sunday School and Kids’ Church, God says Hello to them.  We look for them to respond in a way that we consider healthy and positive.  When they seem hesitant, we may push them forward, “Say Hello to God.”  Maybe they’re not ready when we think they should be.  Maybe some of the church’s activities for children just don’t click with their interests and aptitudes.  And maybe they want to say Hello to God in a way that doesn’t seem “polite,” from a traditional point of view.

My advice is to relax, back off and wait for them to respond to God’s greeting.  Over fifty years of ministry, I’ve watched some caring parents who cared too much, who tried to program their kids into a Christian life that can only come by spiritual new birth.  It never works.  You love God and you love your child.  You’ve introduced them.  God has said Hello.  If your child is slow to respond, you need to trust God, and you also need to trust this wonderful person he has allowed you to raise.  You can whisper, “Say Hello to God,” but don’t say it too loud, or too often.

— Pastor George Van Alstine